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What We Talk about When We Talk about Bankers

Helping a friend off the ledge of a lucrative, but evil, career path

Welcome to The Baffler’s agony corner, YOUR SORRY ASS, where Amber A’Lee Frost dispenses bossy, judgmental advice on how to live your life fairly, kindly, and with good humor. Send us your rants and pleas, please: [email protected].

Dear Your Sorry Ass,

My brother is trying to convince some his friends not to become bankers. I don’t mean tellers at the local branch, I mean Bain and BlackRock and shit—the really major “asset management” corporations and “consulting” firms that dominate the ugly world of finance.

One of the guys—kind of a nerdy but all-American dude, into sports and videogames—goes to a big-ish, highly ranked research university. His dad works at a giant investment management firm, and he’s worked there the last two summers. Banking might just be the easiest path for him. The other one goes to a medium-sized liberal arts school, where he’s in a frat, parties a lot, and has worked summers (thanks to some family connections) at a corporate law firm and at a big bank, where he has an offer.

Since we probably won’t have collectivized all the banks by the time they graduate college next year, what’s the best way to make this appeal? 


Brother Who Couldn’t Really Think of Anything


Dear Tongue-Tied and Future-Capitalist Adjacent,

Oof, that’s a toughie, because while appealing to politics is ultimately an appeal to morality, not everyone has a thorough understanding of the inherent immorality of global capitalism. And the family connections can make it worse. When you’re kissing the ruling class goodnight, you’re not thinking about its misdeeds.

That said, odds are these wide-eyed seniors have gotten some whiff of big banking’s foul stench, at least by reputation, so you could try to inspire them to the sort of intensive self-criticism that might dissuade them from a cutthroat capitalist future. Then again, as Derrida so enigmatically said, “Infinite responsibility, therefore, no rest allowed for any form of good conscience”—and while he had the sort of truly stylish haircut that tends to indicate credibility, tireless examination of the conscience can lead to moral fatigue, guilt, and potentially the sort of “fuck it” nihilism that might actually backfire on you.

As a practical Midwestern Marxist, I tend to agree more with Adorno, who said, “wrong life cannot be lived rightly.” Or, in my own cruder, sexier (read: “preferred”) parlance, “there are no clean hands in a dirty world.” By this I mean that all attempts to live ethically under capitalism—whether by consumption, vocation, or any other means—will ultimately fall short. But there is absolutely no question that some hands are dirtier than others, and those of Bain and BlackRock are downright filthy.

In my own cruder, sexier parlance, “there are no clean hands in a dirty world.”

I would suggest you go easy on the preaching or politicking. Don’t tone it down entirely, but as you hone your calm, convincing elevator pitch against capitalism, remember that people tend to mistake structural political problems for failures of character. They might know that some bankers are bad guys, but they likely believe that they would be benevolent bankers. Do they like their fathers? That’s the biggest question here. If they believe dad is a good guy, you’re not going to make much headway through the vilification of their seemingly congenital career path.

If you’re really trying to save some immortal souls, try redirection. Tell these Gordon-Gekkos-in-waiting how hellish their future banking jobs can be. Now, I’m in a bind here, because I can’t say I’ve ever truly been tempted by money or power—most likely, I assure you, because it has never been offered. Since I am not an authority on the matter, I have called in a consultant of my own, Ferdinand the Anonymous Finance Guy. So tell us, Ferdinand, is banking even that cool of a job?

Depends what you like. Those jobs can be intellectually stimulating, especially for the first decade or so—you are surrounded by ambitious, sharp, ruthless people.

There is probably less politics and more focus on money-making than anywhere else in corporate world (except for maybe Google and a few others).

You get paid a shitload of money, and you have a socially prestigious career. You will work long hours, though, so those are the tradeoffs. Ignoring the lack of a social life, for self-driven, analytical, ambitious, intellectually curious people who don’t mind hard work, it is a good career.

Another critical thing: those two names in particular—Bain and BlackRock—are like a Harvard degree. You get them on your resume, and people swoon for the rest of your life.

Thank you, Ferdinand.

So that’s what you’re dealing with. Banking has a lot of perks, and if these guys have already drunk the capitalist Kool-Aid, you’re probably not going to get them singing the Internationale as newly minted class traitors anytime soon.

But do they want to be their fathers? That’s your angle. Do they want those hours, those cold-blooded colleagues, the merciless atmosphere, the enmity of the people? Do they have other interests you can emphasize and encourage? Hit up the political angle, but from a dispassionate distance—tread carefully when approaching anything that might seem like denigration of a beloved pater familias.

Most of all, though, prepare to lose this one. These guys are pumped and primed for the big-money rat race. They’ve already been dropped onto that track. If they’re still gravitating toward banking, it’s probably because it looks appealing to them, because they’ve seen their daddies bring home the bacon and it looks like a sweet deal—and in many ways, it is. If you want to show them how the sausage is made, you should focus on what their life on the assembly line will be like. Time is of the essence here, and a crash course in The Communist Manifesto is highly unlikely to take root.

In other words—think like a capitalist and appeal to their self-interest. Good luck!